The Depth of Gratitude

By Shannon Lee

Definitions around gratitude are pretty clear and basic: the act of being grateful…shocker. Being grateful, however, goes deeper and relates to having a warm and deep appreciation. I love that phrase, “A warm and deep appreciation.” It makes me think of a warm blanket that is all encompassing that completely covers me. It’s the perfect temperature that warms to the bone.

Psychologists provide another way to define gratitude: a positive emotional response that we’ve perceived on giving or receiving a benefit from someone. (Kennon M. Sheldon 2011)(Edmonds and McCullough, 2004.)

And yet one particular definition that caught my eye came from the dictionary and it reads, “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.”

To return kindness…that seems a bit more active than making a gratitude list or saying ‘thanks’, doesn’t it? But how does gratitude look at work?



Meaning Not Just Manners

I see it all the time: leaders implement acts of gratitude or appreciation towards their associates in the form of recognition lunches, rewards programs and discount clubs. There’s nothing wrong with broad, organization-wide programs like these. However, I don’t believe they fit the definitions of gratitude above.

My concern is these programs become a cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all act of appreciation. They do not require the leadership to actually engage in gratitude. So instead of being special, or tailored to wants and needs, these “gifts” are related to getting the most bang for the organizational buck, a shot across the bow. The motivation is not gratitude, the motivation is more along the lines of manners.

Listen, I’m a fan of manners. It’s nice and proper to thank people. Let’s not stop doing this. But I think we can do better. I think we can do more.

We can establish a culture of gratitude by:


  • Showing gratitude in ways that are meaningful to the other person
  • Getting specific about what we are grateful for
  • Connecting what we are grateful for, to why we are grateful for it


Equitable Expression

Because you’re a leader, your deep, warm expression of gratitude has a greater impact. I believe this is true because everything a leader says and does holds more weight simply because they are the leader. I found this out the hard way when I went from being a teacher to an elementary principal; I became the boss of my co-workers. I learned fast how much my expression of gratitude, or the lack thereof, impacted the teachers who worked for me. It was easy to express warm appreciation for the people I liked.  It was natural then, to inadvertently share deep appreciation with some but not others. I learned I had to be more equitable in my displays of appreciation, whether or not someone was my ‘cup of tea’.

Why? Because the impact of my lack of appreciation and gratitude actually created a negative impact on people. Withholding appreciation is not neutral…it does harm. I don’t want that and any caring leader wouldn’t want that either.

To work on this, I had to dial up my appreciation towards some and dial back for others. This isn’t a perfect science but more of an awareness of my tendency to play favorites. Note: If you are someone who purposefully withholds appreciation and gratitude to punish others, you are hurting yourself. Yes, you are punishing the other person, but remember this: when your people are winning, you win too. When you become the cause of their winning, you get the credit. But when you create the negative environment of losing by intentionally withholding this kind of deep appreciation, your people lose and therefor you lose. You’ll never tap into their discretionary effort, which is what we all want.


Overdo Appreciation

When you think you’re expressing the right amount of gratitude, chances are that the people around you are just beginning to experience it. In other words, more than likely, it’s not enough. Carolyn Wiley of Roosevelt University conducted a study about appreciation in the workplace. (Heath 2017) This study spanned forty-six years and included surveying employees and their supervisors about their top motivations at work. In those forty-six years Carolyn found that only two motivating factors showed up every time the survey was conducted. One of them was “full appreciation of work done.” Of course, they asked supervisors if they had expressed appreciation and then asked the subordinates if they had felt appreciated. When asking supervisors, 80% reported they showed appreciation to their direct reports, but only 20% of their direct reports said they felt appreciated by their supervisors. This was not only a surprise to those who took part in the study, but a huge surprise to me. If you think you are showing appreciation and gratitude to the people around you, both at home and at work, you might be doing an okay job, but do more. Chances are, it’s just not enough.


A Common Mistake

Many leaders want to know when enough is enough. How do we know how much is enough gratitude? My question is…enough for what? If we are showing gratitude to create a reaction or awareness in another person, it’s not gratitude, it’s manipulation. What we are really doing is wearing the trappings of gratitude in order to serve our own selfish need to be validated. That kind of expression is from a needy energy, not an energy of actually showing gratitude. I show gratitude whenever I feel it, regardless if the person responds in kind or not. It’s not about a response and you are never really finished because there’s always something to express gratitude for.

As we walk into the month of November when gratitude and thankfulness enter the forefront of so many of our thoughts, I encourage you to deeply evaluate your active expression of gratitude to those at work and beyond. Then, choose three people at work to show deep appreciation towards. You’ll surely be returning kindness then.


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